In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Handbooks for Confessors

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Early Penitentials (Pre-13th Century)
  • Self, Character, and the Middle English Literature of Confession

Medieval Studies Handbooks for Confessors
Jennifer Garrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0235


Throughout medieval Europe, the literature that prepared both priest and penitent for sacramental confession was immensely popular and influential. And for good reason. This literature not only prepared believers to receive divine grace and forgiveness through the sacrament itself, but it also offered them a powerful language of self-definition. From lists of sins and matching penances to fantastic exempla involving divine intervention to poetic reflections on the nature of contrition, penitential literature gave readers a language for describing and redefining their own individual experiences in relation to power structures both ecclesiastical and divine. In fact, such literature became increasingly central to religious culture over the course of the Middle Ages. Although guides to confession existed prior to the 13th century, the sheer number of guides ballooned in response to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council’s Canon 21, Omnis utriusque sexus, mandated annual confession for every adult, regardless of gender or estate. To prepare clergy for the delicate pastoral work the Council expected them to carry out, handbooks, or summae, for confessors appeared that instructed priests in how to sensitively and thoroughly interrogate penitents as to the precise circumstances and nature of their sins before prescribing an equally individualized form of penance. From these handbooks, the genre expanded and transformed into a variety of Latin and vernacular forms, including, for example, the treatise on virtues and vices. These penitential discourses became so pervasive that they eventually shaped the ways in which a whole range of poetic texts by authors such as Gower, Chaucer, Langland, and the Pearl poet shaped characters and imagined subjectivity itself. The topic of this article is “handbooks for confessors,” a term that sometimes refers to the Latin summae specifically directed at clergy and sometimes signifies all literature intended to prepare priest or penitent for confession. This article outlines major resources, texts, and trends in modern scholarship with this second, broader definition in mind. In my consideration of vernacular texts, I focus primarily on texts available or written in the British Isles.

General Overviews

There are a number of excellent overviews of both medieval confession and the handbooks for confessors as a genre. Tentler 1977 remains the standard work on the topic and is the most comprehensive overview of medieval confessional practice; Tentler’s characterization of medieval confession as simultaneously a source of consolation and a tool for social control continues to influence most current treatments of the topic. Michaud-Quantin 1962 is an indispensable guide to the major works in the genre from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Boyle 1982 offers the best attempt to classify the genres and subgenres of the literature of confession. Goering 2008 provides a magisterial and thorough description of the genre and its relation to canon law. Biller 1998 gives a detailed account of current scholarship on confession, with particular reference to debates in historical scholarship. Finally, Raskolnikov 2005 provides a review of scholarship on confession and penitential literature in Middle English literary studies.

  • Biller, Peter. “Confession in the Middle Ages: Introduction.” In Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages. Edited by Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis, 3–33. York: York Medieval Press, 1998.

    Outlines current state of scholarship in terms of technical studies as well as historical debates. Impressively thorough overview of current scholarship.

  • Boyle, L. E. “Summa confessorum.” In Les Genres littéraires dans les sources théologiques et philosophiques médiévales: Définition, critique et exploitation. 227–237. Louvain, Belgium: Publications de l’Institut d’Études Médiévales, 1982.

    Provides probably the most sophisticated attempt to classify the literature of penance and confession. Though Boyle’s generic distinctions have not been widely accepted as definitive, he succinctly and clearly lays out his definitions of different kinds of pastoral and penitential literature. Article is in English.

  • Goering, Joseph. “The Internal Forum and the Literature of Penance and Confession.” In The History of Medieval Canon Law in the Classical Period, 1140–1234: From Gratian to the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX. Edited by Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington, 379–428. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008.

    Thorough and convincing description of penance as a part of a larger juridical system: “the Church’s internal forum of conscience and confession” (p. 381). Particularly helpful for relating canon law to handbooks for confessors. Defies the time frame of the collection and extends into the fifteenth century.

  • Michaud-Quantin, Pierre. Sommes de casuistique et manuels de confession au moyen âge (XII-XVI siècles). Louvain, Belgium: Nauwelaerts, 1962.

    One of the most widely cited overviews of penitential texts, beginning with Alain of Lille and continuing into the 16th century. Provides useful descriptions of the contents of major penitential works and movements, with a focus on Latin and French texts.

  • Raskolnikov, Masha. “Confessional Literature, Vernacular Psychology, and the History of the Self in Middle English.” Literature Compass 2 (2005): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2005.00128.x

    Reviews recent scholarship on medieval confession in relation to debates about the history of the self. Argues that Middle English confessional literature provided a practical and multifaceted alternative to philosophical and medical models of the self.

  • Tentler, Thomas N. Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    Historical examination of penance—including its historical practice and primary documents—in the Western church before the Reformation. Drawing on a range of primary documents, gives an encyclopedic view of the practice of confession, definitions of sin, and the social function of confession. Special section on sexual sins of married people.

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